The Washington Ballet plans to travel to Cuba in late October to perform three times in the prestigious International Ballet Festival.
Preliminary plans call for the repertoire to include excerpts from Artistic Director Septime Webre's new work, "The Jazz/Blues Project," which will premiere in Washington this fall.
In addition, Weber is putting together a 300-title dance video library of great American ballet classics in an attempt to diminish what he describes as "the great feeling of isolation" felt by Cuban artists.
Company managers also hope to sponsor a seminar for mid-career choreographers as part of the festival.
And Webre has been invited to choreograph a ballet in 2001 for Ballet de Camaguey, Cuba's second-largest company.
Washington and Baltimore audiences should benefit from the cultural exchange as well. The Washington Ballet plans to commission a new work by a Cuban choreographer, using sets and music created by Cuban artists. That work is expected to premiere at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in the 2001-2002 season.
"We're going to Cuba to dance," Webre said. "But we'll do more than dance. We're hoping to create long-term relationships between the artists of the two cultures."
Those relationships have not been possible until very recently. The U.S. government has had a trade embargo against Fidel Castro's communist government since the 1960s, and prohibitions were placed on visits by U.S. citizens.
But restrictions have eased in the past few years.
In November 1998, a non-professional branch of the Alvin Ailey Dance Company visited Cuba. The Baltimore Orioles visited the island in the spring of 1999, and the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra performed in Havana last December.
The impetus for the Washington Ballet's visit began 10 months ago when Webre, who is of Cuban descent on his mother's side, visited Havana for the first time.
A highlight of that October visit was a meeting with Alicia Alonso, artistic director of Cuba's Ballet Nacionale and a former performer with the American Ballet Theatre. Alonso also has ties to the Washington Ballet; she danced as a guest artist with the neophyte company in the 1950s, where she formed close friendships. So the idea for the cultural exchange arose naturally.
Current plans call for an entourage of about 125 to visit Cuba, including performers, administrators, students, teachers and theater directors from around the United States. (For "The Jazz/Blues Project," Cuban musicians will take the place of the Howard University Jazz Ensemble, which will accompany the dancers at the Kennedy Center performances.)
The next few months will be hectic for organizers of the tour. Among other things, they'll have to finalize the repertoire for the Cuba visit, rehearse the dancers and continue to raise money to pay for the choreography seminar and related cultural and educational activities. So far, $90,000 has been pledged from foundations and other private donors, according to the company's manager, Kara Skolnick.
"We look forward to our visit to Cuba with great expectation and enthusiasm," says Martin Cohen, Washington Ballet's executive director. "We're excited about mixing Cuba's world-class ballet and Latin flavor with our company's energy and Septime's firebrand creativity.
"But most of all, we're looking forward to reconnecting two rich dance cultures for the benefit of art everywhere."
Sun staff writer Mary Carole McCauley contributed to this article.